A nervous night for NATO
Vladimir Putin almost gatecrashes a summit
THIS week’s NATO summit in Riga never looked like having much to grab the headlines. Enlargement was off the agenda. The best that NATOniks could hope for was the promise of a rapid reaction force, more troops for Afghanistan, and—perhaps most importantly—the symbolic gains from holding the event in the capital of a once-captive nation.
But for a perilous 24 hours disaster loomed. The whole summit looked in danger of being knocked off course, or at least upstaged. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had decided to come to Riga as well. Not technically for the summit, but at the invitation of Jacques Chirac, who proposed to celebrate his 74th birthday by having dinner with his Russian counterpart and with any other national leaders who might care to attend. Latvia’s president, the queenly Vaira Vike-Freiberga, had ignored her own diplomats and agreed to host the meeting.
It was hard to imagine a bigger show-stealer. There could be no clearer display of the Franco-Russian connection that has debilitated NATO’s decisionmaking. The dinner would be an advertisement for the number of NATO members that put their ties with France or Russia ahead of their solidarity with the alliance. It would be a triumph for Russia’s divide-and-rule policy towards the Baltics (punish one, ignore another, flatter the third).
Rumours and explanations swirled amid the stale canapes and lukewarm wine. Version one (put around by the French) held that this was a Russian stunt: Putin had asked Chirac to arrange it, and so insistently that it would have been rude to decline. Version two: Chirac loathed NATO and wanted to undermine it. Version three: Chirac had nobody to celebrate his birthday with at home, and wanted to use the summit as a backdrop.
Normally staid diplomats were spitting tacks. Latvia’s foreign ministry was having institutional apoplexy. Suggestions that the president’s vanity was matched only by the weakness of her advisers were met with growled assent rather than the usual pained denials. One optimistic Latvian, in charge of his country’s image, jotted down a new marketing slogan: “Latvia: where presidents go to party”. More rumours sprouted: Putin’s delegation wanted to come without visas; Latvia had denied them visas; Latvia was holding out for a bilateral meeting before the birthday dinner and Russia was saying no.
Normally staid diplomats were spitting tacks. Latvia’s foreign ministry was having institutional apoplexy.
The last turned out to be true. A full formal meeting with the Latvian president was too much for the Kremlin. Blaming scheduling problems, it “regretfully” announced that the trip was off.
The next morning, over stale croissants and lukewarm coffee, NATOniks picked over the ruins. France probably came off worst, at least in its critics’ eyes: self-important, destructive, unreliable. The Americans were quietly pleased: “It’s the death rattle of the Chirac era” said one. The French talked airily as if, for a great power such as their own, the odd kerfuffle was part of life's rich tapestry.
It is easy to see why Mrs Vike-Freiberga was ready to share the risk of hosting Mr Putin. No Russian leader has paid a bilateral visit to a Baltic state since the three countries regained their independence from the Soviet Union. Sealing a rapprochement with Russia would be a fine way to round off her presidency, which ends next year.
But it is also easy to see why other Balts feel paranoid. It is not only the Russians who are showing disrespect. A German spy ship was found doing sonar research on the seabed recently in Estonia’s economic zone—apparently for a Russian-German gas pipeline that has been planned with an ostentatious disregard for the countries that it bypasses. Germany dismissed an Estonian diplomatic protest as “ridiculous”. Maybe: lots of things are ridiculous. Not least the sight of France, a founder-member of NATO, so readily cosying up to a Russia that holds the alliance’s new and future members in such blatant contempt.